Back in December, while walking the Downs Link with Kaylee, she asked me about my writing. During the conversation I explained that the biggest improvements in my writing came from three simple rules. She emailed me yesterday to ask me to remind her what they were. I thought I’d put them here.
Rule 1 – Never use adverbs
I first encountered this rule in Stephen King’s book On Writing. Any time an adverb is used, there’s a stronger single word that can be used. ‘Walked quickly’ can be replaced by ‘rushed’ – or ‘dashed’, or ‘scurried’; ‘said loudly’ can be replaced by ‘shouted’ – or ‘boomed’ or ‘yelled’. Leaving out adverbs makes the writing tighter. English has a massive vocabulary available so losing the adverbs isn’t much of a constraint.
Rule 2 – Edit by reading aloud
Reading a text aloud slows you down enough to spot more mistakes. It’s also good for spotting when a sentence is too long. If you feel awkward or breathless as you read it, add a full stop somewhere. You’re also more likely to spot words that you’ve used too often (my greatest weakness).
Rule 3 – Write simple
Pick the simplest possible way of writing your sentences. Which isn’t to say to never use long words – if phosphorescence is the only word that will do, great – but you might be as well off with glow. Lovecraft is the classic example of this, someone who is a great writer despite their vocabulary, not because of it.
None of the above rules are revolutionary – they’re fairly common instructions. But they are all things I wish I’d known sooner.
There are also other ‘rules’ I follow: don’t use the passive voice; never start a sentence “There was/is”. I also like the rule Tim Clare often talks about where you put the most interesting part of a sentence at the end.
Having said that, there are lots of common rules which, I think, are applied too often. ‘Show, don’t tell’ is a good rule for certain types of voice, but it’s not absolute. Someone like Vonnegut makes his books much more entertaining by telling the reader the story – you know, like an actual storyteller.